The European Commission is taking the bloc’s biggest economies to court over air pollution

Europeans are choking on fumes.
Europeans are choking on fumes.
Image: AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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The European Commission has had enough of being ignored by what has been dubbed a “toxic bloc” of countries. It announced today (May 17) that it was taking Britain, France, Germany, as well as Italy, Romania, and Hungary to the European Court of Justice for failing to comply with air-quality limits—and repeatedly ignoring requests to tackle dangerous pollution levels in their cities.

“The decision to refer Member States to the Court of Justice of the EU has been taken on behalf of Europeans,” EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said in a press statement, adding that they “have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation.”

The EU’s executive body said it is targeting the “significant and persistent” exceeding of limits for health-damaging nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. The European Environment Agency said in October 2017 that fine particulate matter causes more than 400,000 premature deaths in the EU annually.

“This long-overdue announcement shows governments they cannot go on allowing citizens to be poisoned by toxic air,” Julia Poliscanova from sustainable transport group Transport & Environment, said in an email. “It’s time to get tough on the main cause of the breach: the manufacturers of the 40 million dirty diesel cars and vans still on Europe’s roads.”

Germany’s automakers, in particular the Volkswagen Group, which sold millions of emissions-rigged diesels, have been dragging their feet over retrofitting the affected cars to make them cleaner. The government, however, has repeatedly refused to force the car industry to undertake—and pay for—costly exhaust refits. Opposition parties in the Bundestag slammed Angela Merkel on Wednesday for claiming it would just weaken the auto industry if the government pressured it to fix the diesels.

Meanwhile, a court in Leipzig ruled in February that German cities, many of which have dangerously air pollution, can go ahead and impose diesel bans. The first of the bans went into force in Hamburg this week.